Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A retrospective review of my controversial restaurant guide

July 2017. In 1972 – 45 years ago – I published a guide to the restaurants of Stockholm: “Eating out in Stockholm”. Nobody had ever before tried to make an objective, critical appraisal of the Swedish capital’s eating out scene. To my amazement – and dismay – it created a bit of a sensation.

 

It turned the country’s leading krögare (restaurateur), Tore Wretman, incandescent with rage. He led a campaign not just against me personally but also against my publisher, Bertil Hökby of Prisma Books. He induced gossip columnists in the Swedish press to print defamatory tales about him – he, a scholarly person of transparent honesty and integrity. As for me, Wretman banned me from his restaurants, the prestigious Operakällaren, Stallmästargarden, and Riche.

This was revealed in an article published around 1973 in Expressen, the country’s biggest daily. One Expressen journalist, Lasse Mattsson, later confessed to me that Wretman had been able to suppress that report for quite some time – “He actually managed to silence Expressen!” Lasse said to me in incredulity. The article’s eventual appearance showed that Expressen’s “publish and be damned” ethos would always win through in the end.

Two men in particular defended me: Nils-Bertil Philipson, agent for many leading wine and spirits producers ; and Roland Möllerfors, owner and editor of Restauranger & Storkök, leading restaurant and catering magazine, who continued to publish my articles on wine and gastronomy despite pressure from Wretman and others to make him desist.

Eventually the fuss died down, though I had to endure a long period of near-isolation. Finally, some of Wretman’s senior staff made it clear that, as far as they were concerned, I was welcome in any of the three restaurants whenever I wished to go.

In the end, a decade or so after the event, Wretman himself made overtures through Bengt Frithiofson of Svenska Dagbladet, then the country’s best-known restaurant critic. Bengt, a very decent person, organized a “dinner of reconciliation” in his home, with Wretman, myself, and our respective wives as guests. In the course of the evening Wretman mumbled something about being “unduly sensitive to criticism” by way of a grudging apology, and made it clear that byegones were byegones. From then on our relations were “friendly” but distant.

 

Rather touchingly, Johan, the Operakällaren’s doorman – a kind of St Peter at the door, who decided who could enter and who could not – greeted me like an old friend throughout the whole affair, waving me inside while grinning at me in the friendliest way.

 

All that happened close to a half-century ago.

 

*

 

Most writing is ephemeral, and restaurant guides especially so. You can imagine my surprise, then, when only the other day a prize-winning Swedish wine and food blog, “Öhmans Mat & Vin”, came out with a retrospective review of “Eating out in Stockholm” – forty-five years after its publication! So my book had not been totally forgotten. In truth, I was quite touched to learn that that little guide, the fruit of many months’ work, was still remembered after such a passage of time.

 

Here’s what its editor, the eponymous Öhman, wrote only days ago:

“Today I got hold of an exceptionally interesting book – “Eating Out in Stockholm” by Frank Ward, from 1972. It was clearly the first ever review of Stockholm restaurants and it gave rise to some very strong reactions. Among other things Frank – who later started up the [wine] importing company Ward Wines, was banned from Wretman restaurants” […].

 

“It is truly fascinating to read about restaurant life in a completely different era,” he continued. “So very much has happened in the intervening 45 years. I was particularly struck by the description of Carl Butler’s “Svensson & Butler” restaurant. After having spent so much time researching Carl Butler and his recipes it was really exciting to read about how the food was received, how much it cost, and what sort of atmosphere the place had. It was almost like being there. Frank Ward’s verdict on the place: ‘Outstanding’. “

 

Mr Öhman then reproduces my description of the restaurant, and of its specialities, in full.

 

What exactly provoked Tore Wretman’s violent reaction to “Eating out in Stockholm”? After all, I’d given the great Operakällaren my highest accolade of all, the equivalent of three stars. Riche was praised not only for its “sumptuous” ambience but also for some first-rate dishes. As to the third jewel in the Wretman crown, affectionately known as “Stallis”, I enthused about its magnificent location beside Haga royal park and on the shores of a lake inlet, with its ornamental pools filled with water lilies, tinkling fountains, willow trees, and ten varieties of rose; but in truth I had little good to say about the food: “It, regrettably, is quite simply not up to the standard of the setting… Their chief specialities – mostly barbecues and grills – demand little in terms of cooking skills.

 

My critique of the indifferent cooking can’t have pleased Tore Wretman; but it was surely the following observations, added as rider, that set off the explosion:

 

“Stallmästaregarden, like Riche and Operakällaren, is operated by Tore Wretman, easily Sweden’s most famous restaurateur. He has done much to raise food standards in Stockholm and has written several excellent books on the culinary arts. He is, though, rarely to be seen at any of his establishments and never cooks there – not for the public at least. Most of his time is nowadays spent, it seems, in television appearances, attending dinners, writing, and in administration. The sight of him working again in his kitchens, even were it only once a week, would surely do much to inspire his chefs, sous-chefs, and apprentices who, one sometimes feels, would greatly benefit from such a shot in the arm. Wretman, a forceful and charming personality, can be likened to a general writing books on tactics; but one doing so while the battle is still raging. His captains and subalterns await him.”

 

***

 

Around that time, and following the guide’s publication, I found myself in St James’ Street in London, and became aware that I was passing the famous Madame Prunier restaurant. Her name was known to all food lovers but I’d never met her in person. On an impulse I went inside – it was long past lunch hour – and asked if Madame Prunier was on the premises. “Do you want to see her?” I was asked. Though suddenly very nervous, I replied that I did. Madame Prunier, an elegant, very human lady in her sixties, could not have been more charming when she received me in her upstairs office. I told her about “Eating Out in Stockholm”, which seemed to quicken her attention. She informed me that she knew Wretman and had been his guest in Stockholm. I recounted my post-publication experiences with him and she smiled knowingly. In a circumspect way, she made it clear that his hospitality had not been of the most gracious kind, while observing drily that he was an “unduly forceful” personality. Too fine a person to be overtly critical of him, she signalled her approval of my judgment by inviting me to dinner that evening as her guest. “Bring a friend,” she said, phoning down to confirm the booking. “I won’t be here but my head waiter will look after you.”

 

It was a memorable meal.

 

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© Frank Ward 2017

 

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